JIM PRENTICE COMES from a proud hockey family. His dad, Eric, had a cup of coffee with the Leafs in the early 1940s, then spent nine seasons in the minors. Uncle Dean (“the most underrated forward of the era,” according to the Hockey Hall of Fame website) spent 22 years in the NHL as a steady, two-way winger, flanking stars like Andy Bathgate and Gordie Howe. So, ask the 51-yearold industry minister what position he plays on the team of a hockey-mad prime minister, and he has a ready answer. “I always do what I’m asked to do. The penalty kill. Dig out the puck on the power play. Muck in the corner, or take a hard hit.” The message is inescapable— everyone knows that Coach Harper is all about teamwork, and Prentice is determined to be his most disciplined player. As he says,
“an assist garners as many points as a goal.”
It’s a role the Calgary MP wears well. Since his election in June 2004, he’s built a reputation as one of the cabinet’s steadiest performers, landing plum jobs as head of the powerful operations committee, and seats on several other key policy-shaping bodies. Not bad for a guy with no prior government experience, and a history on the wrong side of the Alliance/Tory divide. “He’s the closest thing this government has to a deputy prime minister,” says a Conservative party strategist. “He’s the guy trusted to fix things and broker deals.” An even better indication of the value of Prentice’s stock might be his carte blanche to speak with the media, a burden rarely entrusted to
most of his cabinet colleagues. “I always try to ensure I have all the information and not shoot from the hip,” Prentice says, trying to explain why Harper trusts him to talk for his government. “That’s my style.”
After an 18-month stint as minister of Indian affairs, where he stickhandled the residential schools deal and launched an overhaul of the land claims process, Prentice was rewarded with the Industry portfolio this past summer, when Maxime Bernier moved to Foreign Affairs. “He started a lot at [Indian Affairs], but he was underutilized,” says one Tory warroom veteran. “He’s much better placed at Industry than Bernier was because he’s not an ideologue. He’s no lefty, but he doesn’t mind using the power of government in the economy.” With his characteristic blend of pragmatism and caution, Prentice has made one bold move—defying the big telecoms by setting aside part of the wireless spectrum for new players—and delayed action on two other contentious files, copyright reform and foreign takeovers. The coming months, though, should test his mettle, as the flailing U.S. economy threatens to drag more and more Canadian businesses under.
It’s a crucial test for a man with two failed leadership bids (the PCs in 2003, and the merged Conservatives in 2004), who is thought to have ambitions of greater things. “If he wants to get credentials to be a primeministerial candidate in the future, then an economic portfolio is a vital thing,” says a well-connected Ottawa government relations consultant. “Industry is a good place to be. It’s Finance with fun.”
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